From dog’s folly to truffiere
Rod and Mirani Keillor almost gave up on their truffière.
It had been 12 years since they planted the inoculated hazelnut trees and there had been no signs of the Périgord black truffle under any of them. They wanted to extend their vineyard, the diggers were ready, and then the truffle dog and its handler did their rounds as they had done every year.
And for the first time the dog found them.
“For 12 years I had been calling it Rod’s folly,” Mirani said. “Now I call it our truffière.”
The find was not only exciting for the Keillors but also for the industry and the region. Their truffière, at Bannockburn near Cromwell in Central Otago, is the furthest south black truffière in the country.
The white truffle is even grown in Southland but the prized Périgord black truffle, worth $3,000 per kilogram, had only been produced successfully as far south as Ashburton.
The fungus grows on the tree roots, and in Spain, France and Italy it occurs naturally under deciduous trees such as oaks, hazelnuts and cherries.
Prized throughout the world by chefs, the truffles grow entangled in the tree roots and are dug up in the depths of winter.
Black truffles have also been cultivated in South Africa and parts of North and South America. In Western Australia the industry is worth millions of dollars with tonnes harvested annually.
Rod and his family already owned land in Bannockburn, three hours away from their home in Dunedin, and in 1999 planted pinot noir vines there.The majority of the grapes are now sold to nearby wineries but they also bottle under their own label. Black Quail Pinot Noir regularly wins awards, including last year the Romeo Bragato Wine Award and the Mike Wolter Memorial Trophy, won with its 2013 vintage.
But in the late 1990s, Rod was thinking about truffles as well as wine. At the time Dr Ian Hall had developed a method to produce Périgord black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) mycorrhized plants at the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Invermay site near Dunedin.
Rod and Mirani started looking for the right position on their land, and soil temperatures were monitored for two years before 240 inoculated hazelnut trees were planted on less than a hectare in 2003.
Back then the trees cost them $35 each and minimum cultivation and orchard development was required apart from a watering system, wire trellis to support the trees and plastic protection on their trunks to keep away pests.
The couple became members of the New Zealand Truffle Association and their excitement grew.
And then nothing happened. They let their membership lapse, their truffle dog Rissa, a Lagotto Romagnolo, practised finding truffles in the home garden in Dunedin using supermarketbought truffle oil and the dream slowly faded.
Until the find in 2015. Now Rissa is much more than a pet, she’s a prized member of the business. On a lead in the truffière, Rod gets her to sniff along each row of trees. When she smells a truffle she paws at the soil and then sits waiting.
He then gently prizes the truffle from the ground and Rissa gets a cube of cheese as a treat. The tree number and where in relation it is to where the truffle was found are recorded as well as its size.
“They’re just below the surface of the ground, sometimes as deep as 5cm. At the start we were finding them right by the trunks of the trees but now we are finding them further out as well,” Rod said.
So far the truffles have ranged in size from 20g to 250g. They are DNA tested every year at Dnature in Gisborne to make sure they are Périgord black truffles and not the undesirable competing Brumale.
The hazelnut trees are kept pruned back to make sure enough sun reaches the ground below them in the summer. Soil temperature is important for black truffles, especially this far south.
“We need the soil temperature above 30 degrees Celsius in summer. It’s all right if it gets cold in the winter but it needs the warmth in the summer.”
The north facing slope they are growing on helps.
Soil pH (acidity/alkalinity) is also thought to be important and the slope is naturally at 7.5.
“We planted some trees three metres apart and some up to six metres apart, to see if that made a difference, and we tried to stagger them a bit so it doesn’t look too much like a plantation.
“The truffles are fruiting from late June to late August but we are uncertain when the best time is to harvest.
“Really we are just guessing what is right and what is wrong, no one knows for sure this far south,” he said.
The couple have rejoined the Truffle Association and were at the annual national conference in Wellington at the end of August ready with questions for their northern counterparts.
They also keep in touch with Ian Hall who is still available for advice. He left Invermay in 2003 and started his own business Truffles and Mushrooms (Consulting) Ltd.
As well as the pressure and anxiety of starting a new venture, Mirani wasn’t keen on the idea of having the needed truffle dog. Rod told her his father would look after it and they would just take it with them to Central Otago in the weekends to find the truffles.
However when the puppy arrived on the plane Mirani wasn’t having any of it, she had fallen in love.
“Lagotto Romagnola dogs are known as truffle dogs but any dog with a good sense of smell will probably find them if it has been trained properly,” Rod said.
The Italian breed was first used as a gun dog, retrieving ducks from lakes and ponds, and had almost been lost as a breed until they found fame again as truffle dogs in Europe. The Keillors’ dog is named after the Italian girlfriend Rod’s father had during World War II.
Black Quail’s viticulturist Lyn Horton, who lives near the vineyard, looks after the hazelnut trees making sure they are watered in summer, the wild thyme that is endemic to the area is kept mown, the trees pruned and the possums and rabbits taken care of. (They’ve found that possums have a liking for hazelnuts and will strip branches bare.)
However, when it is time for them to retire, the Keillors plan to move to Bannockburn and take on a more active role. Mirani is already looking forward to running truffle hunts and has started marketing and selling the truffles.
With the season short, from July until sometime in August, they are very much a winter treat. The volatile oils dissipate when stored, so the sooner they are eaten following harvest the better.
The Keillors gently clean the dirt off them with a damp soft brush and the true colours are then revealed.
“They are really dense black and beautiful then,” Mirani said.
The true taste and aroma comes out with heat, so truffles are usually shaved or grated into hot butter or onto fresh pasta or used in mashed potatoes.
Rod and Mirani’s favourite is with eggs in omelettes or in French toast made from brioche and baked in the oven.
The smell and taste are described as earthy, of the undergrowth on a damp day, but they are “really like nothing else,” Mirani said.
“It is very subtle and at the same time very intense.”
So far Millbrook Estate near Queenstown and other Central Otago restaurants have bought the truffles, often pairing them perfectly with the Black Quail Pinot Noir.
A truffle dinner at the Dunedin Club this winter sold out within 24-hours.
“We’re foody people so we want to do this right,” she said.
“We’re adding to the Central Otago palate.We now know we can grow truffles here. Really, it’s just like the wine.
“No one knew grapes would grow here successfully until the first person tried it and now we have so many vineyards. Maybe the truffles will be the same.”
“Lagotto Romagnola dogs are known as truffle dogs but any dog with a good sense of smell will probably find them if it has been trained properly.”
Mirani Keillor with their truffle
dog Rissa, a Lagotto Romagnolo.